war on the rocks

NATO as a Deterrent

October 23, 2013

Does nuclear deterrence still play a role in European security? To answer this familiar question it is important to keep in mind that the vital deterrent behind the formation of NATO was alliance with the United States. The original concept was that Stalin might try to pick off the European democracies but not if it meant war with the United States. Only for a while in the 1950s did the United States depend exclusively on nuclear weapons for deterrent purposes. Thereafter it was, by and large, the Europeans who put most stress on the nuclear dimension as, by and large, it spared them spending on conventional forces and made clear to Moscow just how high the stakes could become in the face of aggression. The Americans continued to talk up the conventional dimension to deterrence. Even after the end of the Cold War, this remains the case. As I argue in a report for the French think-tank IFRI, the basis for deterrence in Europe is not nuclear weapons but a continuing alliance with the United States.

I make five points:  First, the current security arrangements are likely to endure because there is no better, plausible alternative. Second, it remains the case also that the combined military weight of the NATO allies could overwhelm all potential challengers, although progressive cuts on the NATO side could erode the differential (assuming that Russia can revive its own armed forces). Third, not all negative events can be deterred, especially those that are ambiguous challenges to less-than-vital interests. Fourth, within the spectrum of deterrence, nuclear weapons can only confidently be geared to matters of national survival and therefore major war. If NATO is in a better position to sustain deterrence than before, therefore, this is not because nuclear threats are inherently more credible, for they are not, but because only a small possibility of nuclear escalation should be sufficient to confirm the inbuilt dread of great power war.  Fifth, nonetheless, the problem of extended deterrence remains. Although it may no longer be necessary for the US to threaten a nuclear riposte to conventional aggression it still is expected to threaten retaliation for nuclear aggression.

Without the U.S. nuclear umbrella the non-nuclear members of NATO would have no answer to nuclear threats. The only alternative would be the much smaller British and French forces. The British allocate their nuclear force to NATO but the principles of extended deterrence have never played much role in the U.K. debate and most of the population would be surprised to find that the Trident force had anything other than a purely national role. So while declining confidence in the overall US commitment to Europe might reinforce the rationale for the national deterrents, London or Paris would be disinclined to talk up a wider alliance role for their nuclear forces to replace those of the United States, and might not be taken that seriously if they tried.

So an absence of a major risk of great power war in Europe means that the United States is under no serious pressure to reappraise its commitment to Europe, which in turn sustains deterrence and so reduces further the risk of major war. Should this virtuous cycle be broken at any point, as a result of some unexpected crisis, then it could quickly move in the opposite direction. The challenges may at first be ambiguous, a probe to test alliance resolve and cohesion, rather than a full-on assault.  Some action in one of the Baltic states may appear inflammatory or a crisis elsewhere in Russia’s near abroad may lead to violence that becomes difficult to contain.

Faced with such contingencies, policy-makers would be far less equipped to address the fundamental strategic issues raised by the prospect of major war than were their predecessors. In the years following the Second World War, there was a keen understanding of the potential for tragedy inherent in any conflict and concepts of national sovereignty, alliance, and security were much less fuzzy than they have become in the interim.  Our sense of human contingency and tragedy has been dulled.

The European security system is not in crisis, but – due to the stresses and strains caused by the persistent Euro-zone crisis and the associated austerity – a long-established and effective security system  is slowly being hollowed out. The assumptions about the American commitment and nuclear deterrence upon which the European democracies depended for so long have not been abandoned, and nor are they likely to be, but on close examination they no longer look so robust.  America’s pivot or pirouette or rebalancing towards Asia means that European contingencies are getting little attention. It is in no one’s interest to allow this to become a crisis.  The history of NATO is one of muddling through. Alliance cohesion has been preferred at each stage to intellectual clarity or even policy consistency. New programmes, especially in the nuclear arena, that risk exposing potential divisions and conflicts of interest are rarely welcomed, and even more rarely productive. This is why it is unlikely that a successor will be found to the B-61 bombs and why ballistic missile defences are for the moment largely at sea. So long as these are seen as second-order matters then it is not problematic, but the danger is of a developing and dangerous complacency.

Precisely because there are so many other pressing issues, and because money is so tight, European members of NATO will be content to avoid spending on defence and do no more than acquiesce in nuclear deterrence. It is unrealistic to expect any bold initiatives, but it is not unreasonable to encourage governments to at least remind people about the significance of alliance cohesion, the special problems posed by nuclear weapons, and the meaning of security. If they rely on the sort of routine statements that emanate from NATO summits, affirming established security arrangements in bland, bureaucratic language while avoiding all the difficult issues, an unexpected crisis will find alliance members without the intellectual framework and language with which to address and explain the challenges they face.


Sir Lawrence Freedman has been Professor of War Studies at King’s College London since 1982. He became head of the School of Social Science and Public Policy at King’s in 2000 and was appointed Vice-Principal in 2003.


Photo Credit: NATO